The latest theatrical incarnation in Canberra – Australian Capital Theatre Inc – has a clever logo of its initials representing a figure standing in a spotlight.
To find out about this new company I turned the spotlight onto Peter Copeman, co-director with Dione McAlary of their first production, Norm and Ahmed. By Alex Buzo, who sadly died of cancer recently, the play was famously banned 40 years ago for its use of f*** on stage. But the real controversy should have been about the traditional Australian racism seen in the character Norm against the Pakistani Ahmed.
Today, the theme of the play has become more terribly relevant than ever. Copeman explains that this theatre is “of passion rather than profit” and that this production is a “toe in the water” in the hope that ACT Inc will continue “in and for the capital and for Australia”. A community needs to be “telling its own stories to itself”, especially in a globalised world, where people “crave a sense of locality and local identity”.
Though he admits he hasn’t yet read In Good Company - A manual for producing independent theatre by Lyn Wallis (reviewed in The Canberra Times last March), where warnings abound about planning for sustainability, I discovered that Copeman’s range of experience should stand the company in good stead. He began by training as a director at NIDA, has a masters degree in dramaturgy from Canada, became a writer largely through work in community theatre, particularly with Melbourne’s Jika Jika Theatre with Australia Council and Community Employment Program funding in the 1980s.
Learning discipline in writing came from an Australian Film and Television School course and 18 months writing television scripts for the second last series of Prisoner, including the first script with an Aboriginal woman’s role based on experiences at Fairlea Women’s Prison.
John Clark, recently retired director of NIDA, persuaded Copeman to accept an appointment as executive director of the Northern Territory Theatre Company in Darwin, the short-lived attempt by then Country Liberal Party Chief Minister Paul Everingham to set up a state theatre company to match the southern states. A top-down decision, facing considerable hostility from the incumbent pro-am Darwin Theatre Group and funding cuts by the Federal Labour government meant pensioner concessions on buses were subsequently preferred over an expensive theatre company. Not even its first year’s program could be completed.
In Brisbane, writing and teaching at Queensland University of Technology led to a production of Sinakulo, a play about Australian / Filipino relations, which received an AWGIE in 2003. In Canberra since 2004, Copeman directed the registered vocational training course Theatre Arts Diploma in Entertainment for ANU Enterprises, which won an ACT Training Excellence Award for a training initiative while one student was named Vocational Student of the Year.
The lack of a standard apprenticeship system in theatre, however, saw the course funding cut, so Copeman and graduate students tried in 2005 for a grant to re-present Sinakulo, working with Canberra’s Filipino community, but without success despite their previously successful production of House Arrest at Old Parliament House. Though some of the original group have inevitably moved away from Canberra, ACT Inc is the result of an 18 month gestation period.
Relying entirely in private funds, Norm and Ahmed is a deliberate choice. It has only two actors (Peter Fock and Ian Fallon). Its presentation on the Kingston Foreshore of the Old Bus Depot Markets means no set building is required, since the architecture creates the right imagery as Buzo pictured his play. Using a “found” space rather than a purpose built theatre is consistent with Copeman’s community theatre interests, while the play is an excellent example of telling our story to ourselves.
With this theme in mind, Australian Capital Theatre Inc plans to follow on with other works of the Australian canon, as well as other Australian plays which may have had one professional run and then become forgotten, and may not have been published, yet should be seen again especially in the National Capital.
One concept of ACT Inc is to become an attraction for visitors to Canberra, from Australia and overseas, to see Australian culture in action, while our discussion also led to the need for unpublished scripts from around the country to be retrieved from people’s sheds, cardboard boxes and filing cabinets – even their hard drives – to be collected and archived in one place such as the National Library.
In a previous article I have noted more than 70 theatre groups that of have come and mostly gone in Canberra over the past decade. Perhaps ACT Inc will establish a niche and survive against all the odds.
Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo
Australian Capital Theatre
Old Bus Depot Markets
Wentworth Ave (on the Kingston Foreshore)
Tuesday to Friday November 21 – December 1, 8.30pm
$16 / $12 / $10 groups of 10 or more
Bookings 0417 639 521
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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